Women, Invest in Yourselves

Guest Post By Mary Kinney, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of Ginnie Mae, a cornerstone of the U.S. housing finance system since it was created more than 40 years ago (More about Mary at the end of this post)

We entered the new year with resolutions and new perspectives on life. Whether you want to focus on your health, spend more time with friends and family, or get promoted at work – a new year gives us the opportunity to improve something about ourselves. The key is to find the motivation to fulfill our resolutions.

For me, pursuing my career in financial services has always factored into my new year’s resolutions. My motivation came from my father, who always encouraged me to push boundaries. And, that is just what I did, deciding to join the ranks of one of the most “male dominated” industries—financial services. Now, after having spent nearly 30 years in the industry, I have experienced first-hand many of the obstacles women face in the workplace. To succeed in industries like finance, tech or law enforcement, women must have determination and perpetual motivation. We must be ready for significant sacrifices on a personal and professional level. Over the past decade we’ve witnessed more and more women exude these qualities, taking on the challenges laid before them in the workplace and at home.

However, the progress for women in reaching the very top seats of the corporate world has been slow. According to a new research report by Catalyst, women held 14.3 percent of executive positions at Fortune 500 companies and 16.6 percent of board seats as of mid-year 2012. The report also shows that more than one quarter of Fortune 500 companies have no women in executive roles. So, with New Year’s resolutions on the brain, I found myself asking: Why aren’t more women represented? Even more importantly, what can we do about it?

The Catalyst report also encouraged me to reflect on my own career path, the choices I’ve made both professionally and personally, and the lessons I’ve learned that have helped me get to where I am today. What I found was that having the passion to truly invest yourself in something will also provide you with the confidence and motivation you need to fulfill your resolutions. This holds true on both a professional and personal level. With this in mind, here are a few tips that I hope will provide a little extra motivation in pursuing your own resolutions:

1) Know who you are and what you want.
My father – a successful, self-made executive – has always been a role model and inspiration. The wisest advice he ever gave me was to build my career based on what I want, not what others expect of me. This means acknowledging that while you may not be the best at something, you can still get what you want if you possess the passion, commitment and drive.

2) Sit at the table.
Step up to the table and take a seat. If you don’t come to the table, you can’t play the game.

3) Embrace the “H” word.
During the early years of my career, while I was at a small community savings bank, my manager sat me down and told me I needed a little bit of the “H word.” I did not know what that meant. Noticing this, he said very frankly, “Mary, you need to show some humility.” As a young “career woman” I was taken aback, though I knew deep down he was right. To grow professionally, I had to accept that I wasn’t always going to have the best answer, and I didn’t always have to win. A little modesty goes a long way.

4) Transform obstacles into new beginnings.
When the financial crisis hit, I was working as a vice president at Fannie Mae. Shortly thereafter, I found myself part of what I like to call Fannie Mae’s “graduating class of 2009.” Though I was disheartened by this unexpected change; more than that, I was embarrassed and felt lost. However, soon after, I found it liberating as I never would have left on my own. Sure enough, an opportunity at Ginnie Mae opened up and I realized that leaving Fannie Mae was essential for me to take this next step in my career – I haven’t looked back since.

5) Choose your battles if you want to win the war.
We’ve all heard this before, but it couldn’t be truer for women trying to get ahead. Women have a natural ability to read body language better than men. We must use that to our advantage during times of confrontation or conflict. We also must learn how to back down from certain situations. This goes back to embracing your humility, which also leads to my next piece of advice…

6) Appreciate your “soft” side.
I find that many women believe that recognition in the industry can only come with exhibiting strength and ambition. While having these qualities is essential to a successful career, we must also take advantage of the qualities we innately have as women, or what I like to call our “soft skills.” If you try too hard to suppress or hide these attributes, you aren’t playing your cards right. You can embrace your soft side and still drive results.

7) Know your limits (and others).
I am a very demanding manager. I drive those that I work with and I expect a lot out of them, as I do with myself. At the same time though, my colleagues recognize my compassion. They know that I push them because they are capable of more. And, if for whatever reason, they can’t deliver, they also know I will be there to catch them. Because, ultimately, that is what I would want done for me.

8) Roll up your sleeves and get dirty.
Never believe you are above a task – no matter how junior it may seem. From changing the paper in the printer, to doing your own research. The moment you complain about a task being beneath you or not in your “job description” is the same moment that you lose others’ respect.

9) Let go of the need for instant gratification.
I’ve noticed that many new professionals enter into the working world with a skewed perception of how frequently they should be recognized. Promotions don’t often happen annually. In today’s “instant gratification” world, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that success takes time. Be patient and invest in yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

10) Commit to your goal.
Above all else, I measure my career using one simple philosophy – your reach should always exceed your grasp. Push yourself to reach further than what you think possible. And, don’t ever get too comfortable in your job.

I never thought about being a “woman in a man’s world,” but in retrospect, I have found that much of what got me to where I am today was because I am a woman. We bring something different to the table. Embrace that and keep these lessons in mind as you pursue your new year’s resolutions. I promise you will be happy with the results.

About the Author: Mary K. Kinney is the Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of Ginnie Mae, where she manages the organization’s daily operations including contracting and budgeting, Issuer and portfolio management, enterprise risk, capital markets, securities operations and legislative initiatives. With more than 20 years of industry experience, Ms. Kinney plays a vital role in maintaining Ginnie Mae’s relationships with key officials and executives of the housing and securities industries, the investment community, members of Congress, and other departments and agencies of the federal government.

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